The Entrepreneurial Spirit
Steve Cohen began law school at 58; now, at 68, he’s on the Rising Stars list
Published in 2019 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine on September 30, 2019
Steve Cohen has worked in advertising and publishing, served in the Navy, written seven books, co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s White House task force on early childhood literacy, and launched a number of startups. At age 58, he started law school. Last year, he cofounded the firm Pollock Cohen. This is his first year on the Rising Stars list. He’s 68.
The first really rich guy I knew said to me that he returns every phone call within 24 hours. And the first phone call that’s returned is from the name or number he doesn’t recognize—because he never knows what opportunity’s going to be at the other end of the line. That influenced me. I return every call. If it’s the right opportunity, take a chance.
Working for J. Walter Thompson advertising, I kept pitching to get Time as an account. They turned down JWT but they asked me to come over as head of marketing. I was there almost seven years. Then there was a power coup two levels above me and all of us were out. It was devastating. Nobody likes getting fired. Once, as an entrepreneur, I had to let everybody in the startup go. I had to hire everybody and I had to fire everybody. That was incredibly difficult.
A couple years [after Time], I wound up going to Scholastic. I started a bunch of new businesses and projects at both of those places. I have the entrepreneurial spirit.
What led me to law school at age 58? Drinking. I was at a cocktail party, it was January of 2009, and I was telling this person next to me about an article I had just written—about serving on the jury of a big terrorism case in the Southern District. The person says, “That’s really interesting, are you a lawyer?” I said, “No, I just dress like one.” He said, “Don’t be a wise guy.” I said, “Forgive me, we’ve just met. My wife, who’s at the other end of the room, will confirm that I am a wise guy. But I’ll tell you the truth: If I didn’t have to take the LSAT, I’d go to law school now.” The person said, “You’re accepted!” I said, “Who are you?” The person said, “I’m a dean at New York Law School.”
The brain is a muscle that, in my case, hadn’t atrophied, but, boy, was it out of shape. I had to relearn how to read. Law school was a shock to the system. It was harder because there is something called middle-age memory loss, but it was easier because I knew how the world worked. I loved law school. It made me 20 years younger. And it made me 20 pounds heavier, because I would go out drinking with the other students.
On average, I was twice the age [of the other students]. I had a specific role, I think. I would raise my hand and say to the professor, “I don’t get it.” And I’d hear this collective sigh of relief, probably from a third of the class, who felt the same way: “Whew, thank God the old guy didn’t get it, either.” I had no shame. I was struggling just like everybody else. The Wall Street Journal did a piece about me, and they illustrated it with a photo of Rodney Dangerfield from the movie Back to School. It was totally appropriate!
I’m incredibly lucky now. I went to work for two of the top trial lawyers in the United States—Tom Moore and Judy Livingston—and Adam Pollock and I started this firm 15 months ago. Although it is very much a startup, entrepreneurial business, the things we wanted to do—principally focus on False Claims Act, whistleblower plaintiff’s work—have a long lead time. It takes years for those cases to resolve and make money. So we take hourly billing. We do commercial litigations. We’ve done torts. We have a personal injury case we’re taking right now.
People say, “Oh, I’ve always thought about going to law school.” Do it. If it’s half as satisfying for you as it has been for me, it’s absolutely worth the investment.